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‘A sea change’ for prosecutors in Northern Virginia as liberal democratic candidates sweep races

Steve Descano, a Democrat, won his election for commonwealth attorney in Fairfax County. (Jayrol San Jose/Campaign of Steve Descano)

Democrats swept elections for top prosecutor in four Northern Virginia counties Tuesday, giving a nationwide movement for bold criminal justice reforms a major foothold in the state for the first time.

Candidates who labeled themselves progressives won races for commonwealth’s attorney offices in Fairfax, Arlington and Loudoun counties, while a fourth pushing liberal reforms beat a Republican in Prince William County.

The candidates promised sweeping changes such as moving away from the death penalty, dropping prosecutions for marijuana possession, ending cash bail and limiting cooperation with immigration authorities.

The victors and potential winners represent a generational change. Incumbent prosecutors with nearly 130 years of experience were not on the ballot because of primary losses, a retirement and a resignation to take a judgeship, leaving the races open for fresh faces.

The outcomes were powered to a significant degree by Democratic megadonor George Soros, whose political action committee spent nearly $2.1 million in the primary and general election on polls, mailers and advertisements for Parisa Dehghani-Tafti in Arlington, Steve T. Descano in Fairfax and Buta Biberaj in Loudoun. The fourth winner, Amy Ashworth in Prince William, did not receive in-kind contributions from Soros.

The spending was unprecedented in prosecutors’ races in Virginia, part of an effort by Soros to tip prosecutors’ offices to progressive candidates across the country.

It was also controversial, since opponents accused the recipients of being in the pocket of a billionaire with limited connections to Virginia.

One lawmaker has promised to introduce legislation to ban similar gushers of cash in future Virginia elections.

“These are the most significant commonwealth’s attorney races since I started practicing law in 1971,” said veteran Alexandria criminal defense attorney Marvin D. Miller. “This is really going to be a sea change in Northern Virginia.”

And perhaps beyond. The elections in four of Virginia’s most populous counties are also likely to reverberate across the state, pushing leftward the state prosecutor’s association, which has a significant sway over criminal justice policy and legislation.

The most high-profile contested race Tuesday was in Fairfax County, where Descano, a Democrat, beat independent Jonathan Fahey.

Descano, a former federal prosecutor and Army helicopter pilot, ran on a 22-page blueprint that promised to retool almost every aspect of the how the prosecutor’s office is run.

Descano pledged not to overcharge crimes, end use of cash bail and the death penalty, root out systematic racial discrimination through the collection of data, and drop prosecutions for marijuana possession.

Fahey largely promised to continue the policies of Raymond F. Morrogh, the longtime incumbent Descano beat in the primary.

“We told the people of Fairfax they didn’t have to choose between safety and their values,” Descano said. “They think they can have a criminal justice system that is forward thinking and progressive and accords with their values.”

In Prince William County, Ashworth, a Democrat and former prosecutor, beat former county supervisor and Republican Mike May.

The candidates were vying to replace the retiring Paul Ebert, who was a fixture of criminal justice in Northern Virginia and spent more than 50 years as a prosecutor.

Ashworth eschews the progressive label, but promised liberal changes including the creation of a public defender’s office and allowing defendants to see all evidence prosecutors have collected, known as open-file discovery. May said job one was public safety.

“I think criminal justice reform is long overdue and I’m excited to be on the forefront of that,” Ashworth said.

Biberaj, a Democrat, beat Loudoun Chief Deputy Commonwealth Attorney Nicole Wittmann, who has 26 years of law enforcement experience.

Biberaj said the Democratic victories sent a strong message. “I think this is the community speaking to the fact that we need to do justice differently,” she said.

Biberaj said she would work to keep juveniles who get in trouble in school out of the criminal justice system through mentoring and other initiatives. She wants to increase enforcement of cyber crimes and divert more offenders.

Democratic candidate Dehghani-Tafti takes office in Arlington after running unopposed in the general election.

Dehghani-Tafti beat incumbent Theo Stamos in a June primary, saying she would expand diversion programs, end marijuana possession prosecutions and drop cash bail.

“I think what this victory says is we have to rethink the old myth that the way to safety is locking people up,” Dehghani-Tafti said. “Safety and justice are not opposed.”

Across the country in recent years, candidates promising to make the justice system less punitive and fairer for the poor and minorities have won dozens of prosecutor’s offices, including in Philadelphia, Chicago and Dallas.

Progressive prosecutors have made inroads in Virginia in counties such as Portsmouth and Chesterfield, but Tuesday’s election greatly expands their reach in the state and will be a test of how such policies play in the Washington suburbs.

“The progressive prosecutor movement crosses traditional ideological lines, so it’s not terribly surprising to see that it has popped up in Northern Virginia,” said professor David Alan Sklansky of Stanford Law School.

The progressive winners will face hurdles as they take office. They have promised wholesale change, but none has significant experience as a state prosecutor.

They will also have to build bridges to police departments whose unions backed more conservative candidates.

Andrew Wright, the president of the Police Benevolent Association Fairfax County, said in a statement the union was disappointed Fahey lost.

“The stated goals of Mr. Descano to decrease or eliminate the prosecution of minor theft and drug cases will change our county for years to come,” Wright said in the statement.

Progressive prosecutors have faced similar friction in other jurisdictions.

“If they are smart, they will compromise on some things and bring the changes in more gradually,” Miller said.

She found an ad for free dirt, Her yard was buried by more than 100 truckloads.

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These prosecutors won office vowing to fight the system. Now, the system is fighting back.

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